Blood memory the anchor in AILEY – a documentary on Alvin Ailey, Encounters Film Festival 2021Review by Tammy Ballantyne
Etched in the deep tissues of my mind is the tour of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) to SA in 2015. Seated in the Teatro at Montecasino, the performance washed over me, as I revelled in Rennie Harris’s “Exodus”; Robert Battle’s “Takademe”; “Polish Pieces” by Hans van Manen; “After the Rain” by Christopher Wheeldon and the final rousing iconic signature Ailey work, “Revelations”.
It wasn’t just the virtuosity or the acclaimed technical prowess of this company which struck me; it was the proclamation of pride in identity, of the dancers’ realisation of their own (his/her)stories, of that deep well of Ailey’s gifted vision to tell black American stories of hope, joy and tribute.
This was the second visit of AAADT to SA, the first having been in 1998, when Mandela was in the audience. Ailey himself is an essential connection to the history of SA contemporary dance; his work has inspired and encouraged many of our own dancemakers to find unique and different ways of telling our stories and holding a light up to the past. Two of our own gifted dancer/choreographers, David Matamela and Mamela Nyamza, received scholarships to train with the Ailey School in New York.
AILEY, a moving visual journey through Ailey’s life and process of creating was explained by director Jamila Wignot in a panel discussion on the documentary: “ We started with his voice; the poetry, the personal and the witness testimony. I wanted to use a visual language; there are no static frames, it is always moving…strip away the talking and let the movement do the talking.”
The documentary takes us on a journey from the studio where Rennie Harris is creating a new work to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the company to black and white archival shots of Ailey’s childhood in rural cotton-picking Texas and his mother, to old footage of Ailey’s choreographic works interspersed with brief interactions with seminal company members over the years and their poignant and vivid memories and observations of this man who gave them all a voice.
George Faison, previously an Ailey dancer, speaking in the film and also on the panel, talked of first seeing Ailey’s work and how “he entertained my thoughts and dreams that a black boy could actually dance, could escape…The history, our story was there.” Judith Jamison, who became Ailey’s muse for many works, danced with the company for 15 years, became the artistic director and is now Artistic Director Emerita shares how Ailey validated her “African-American-ness; her church…prowess and fluidity.”
Harris emotionally speaks of “the dancer as physical historian who holds the past, present and future information stored in the body.” This is ultimately the anchoring of the documentary – in Ailey’s own complex and lonely history as an only child moving constantly with his mother in search of work; of his discovery of the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo at age 14; of seeing the great Katherine Dunham and black male dancers on stage who elevated Afro-Caribbean rhythms, blues and spiritual music to the forefront; of his focus on the black American identity having to navigate spaces and shifting geographies.
“We speak on behalf of those who cannot; give voice so we can be recorded and archived. We can take the power and control who gives access,” said Gregory Vuyani Maqoma in the panel discussion. For too long, black histories have been told by white historians and Ailey found a way to change this. However, the struggle of the lonely artist and the violence of silence around this loneliness and Ailey’s solo battle with HIV AIDS and eventual death in 1989, hangs solemnly over the film; all the things that were unsaid, the shame and stigma of living with AIDS in that era, is unpacked beautifully and textually by the critical voice of Bill T. Jones (never an Ailey dancer but a sometime collaborator): “There was this shame of your ‘dirty life’, you had to edit out that history. He was alone but he participated in the editing.”
Wignot’s desire to make “a love letter” to Ailey is realised in this breath-taking documentary that takes us into the lived experience of this extraordinary man who insisted on declaring “I am”. This remains deeply significant today as Harris reminds us that “we are still feeling the same way today; as a culture we are unwanted.” The shots of the work being created in the studio, remind us of the grim reality of black Americans every day, but through this, we remain connected to Ailey’s insistence of not focussing on the oppressed voice, of acknowledging struggles but looking always for the beauty in what Wignot calls ‘the intact human community”.
World premiere Sundance 2021
A film by Insignia Films, Just Films Ford Foundation, +ImpactPartners
Jamila Wignot (director)
Jamila Wignot and Lauren De Filippo
Annukka Lilja (editor)
Daniel Bernard Roumain (original score)
* AILEY is featured on the 23rd edition of Encounters South African International Documentary Festival 10 - 20 June 2021.
Dance Quarterly is a collection of writing from various industry journalists and academics across the country. This online publication is edited and curated by Tammy Ballantyne and Jessica Denyschen. To submit your writing for consideration please email: firstname.lastname@example.org